LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — Former 49ers quarterback and Hall of Famer Steve Young is in a scrimmage with Salt Lake City officials and the town of Alta over water he needs for a property development near Cecret Lake.
Young sent a letter to Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker earlier this month, requesting a letter that the city has no objections for his property to have a connection to a nearby water line. Young also asked for the same authorization for similarly impacted property owners who can't build because they can't get water to their property in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
"I would love to just build a place for my dad," Young said Thursday from his home in Palo Alto, Calif. "In the mid-50s he worked up there, skied up there. He has just tremendously romantic, nostalgic feelings for the area."
Young, a former quarterback for BYU, said he'd like to have the cabin up there for his father to enjoy, and understands the desire of canyon caretakers to protect the area.
"Trust me. Nobody feels more sacred about Cecret Lake than the landowners up there. They really just want to enjoy their own little piece of heaven."
But Young and others with vacant property lots sold decades ago are hamstrung by a restrictive 1991 Salt Lake City ordinance that protects the city's watershed. Alta gets its water from Salt Lake City under a 1976 contract that prohibits any supply of water beyond contract boundaries outlined in the agreement.
Young's property and that of several others near Cecret Lake are outside those contract boundaries, essentially leaving it undevelopable. Several other cabins, however, were grandfathered in at the time of the agreement and use spring water provided by an irrigation district that the city later purchased.
That smacks of unfairness to LeGrande Young, Steve's father.
"The property is in exactly the same situation where cabins have already been built," LeGrande Young said. "They drew a line in the sand and said they were not doing it anymore. It's just not right."
The Youngs have been joined by others, including Kevin Tolton, a Bountiful doctor who has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle that has included access to Alta town records on one front and ownership of a water right on yet another front. Tolton said he has been stonewalled no matter what direction he goes.
"When they say there is no water, it is an absolute lie," Tolton said.
Like Young, Tolton's property at Cecret Lake has patrimonial significance; his father gave it to him on his deathbed.
And his property sits idle, too, with any hopes of putting a cabin on it stymied by a policy Tolton says unfairly singles out a select few at Cecret Lake.
But Jeff Niermeyer, director of public utilities for Salt Lake City, said the ordinance does not play favorites — it simply says no surplus water will be offered for sale in watershed canyons to protect water supplies for current and future city residents.
"It does not make sense to use a city resource to promote development in our own watersheds," Niermeyer said.
Young's letter references a water line his and the other affected properties could tie into, but Niermeyer says that line is insufficient to deliver the necessary water — even if the ordinance did not prohibit it or if the properties were not outside the contract boundaries.
The entrenched position by the town of Alta and Salt Lake City has meant the municipalities have been on the receiving end of multiple lawsuits over the years filed by property owners who say the no-development stance smacks of constitutional violations exercised arbitrarily and unfairly.
Niermeyer admits the pressure over the years has been intense, and has only grown worse year to year from property owners who want to develop.
"The city has spent millions of dollars acquiring water rights and hundreds of millions of dollars building facilities to deliver that water to inhabitants of the city," he said. "There's been a very long history of the city being diligent in protecting our water resources."
While Niermeyer said property owners are always quick to stress their needs would be minimal — that argument, well, doesn't hold water, according to the city.
"They may say it's just a little bit, but it is like death by a thousand cuts," he said.
Still, Young and Tolton say it seems a bit hypocritical for the water providers to be so intransigent to their needs, but have generous allowances in place for big water users such as ski resorts that would allow for extra condominiums or other new development.
Niermeyer said as long as Snowbird, for example, stays under one million gallons of water use per day, it falls within an agreement that is part of a special service district set up by Salt Lake County.
The Young and Tolton properties, he said, are simply outside the terms of the water contract penned with Alta.
"Water on the edge of a desert is a scarce resource."